Dagenham Civic Centre and Coal Tax Post

Dagenham Civic Centre

I found myself in Becontree with time to spare so decided to wander up in the direction of the large open space at Becontree Heath with the intention of taking in the majesty of Dagenham Civic Centre. This art deco beauty was designed by E. Barry Webber who was also the architect of Hammersmith Town Hall. It opened in 1937. Now 80 years later it is about to begin new life as the London campus of Coventry University.

Dagenham Civic Centre

Coal Tax Post Wood Lane

Coal Tax Post

Just around the corner I was surprised to find this Coal Tax Post half-buried beside the road on Wood Lane in front of a block of flats. These posts, erected in the 1860’s around the perimeter of Greater London, marked the point at which the tax on coal was payable to the Corporation of London. They’re positioned roughly 20 miles from the General Post Office in Central London. I’ve previously passed them in Wormley in Hertfordshire.

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What made this find all the more gratifying was its position next to a bridge bearing the Essex County Council coat of arms and dated ‘1921’. It apparently lies over a culverted stream.

Coal Tax Post Wood Lane

Today the spot marks the boundary between the London Boroughs of Barking & Dagenham and Havering. These traces of the past are littered all around us, lying beside the road next to an abandoned shopping trolley, embedded on a bridge across a long-buried stream. Our civic heritage refuses to drift away and be ignored.

A slice of Moscow hidden on the London Underground

A midweek morning drop the kids off at school then wander. The patch of forest off-cut opposite The Green Man glimmered in the morning sun – it was irresistible. I followed the back roads up to the Redbridge Roundabout then suffered the Eastern Avenue till the chunks of pollution got too big to chew down and I ducked off the main thoroughfares again till emerging at Gants Hill.

Lurking beneath the roundabout at Gants Hill is a network of tunnels more like a space station than a tube station – the eastern cousin of the subterranean complex at Hanger Lane, opened the year before Gants Hill was finally revealed in 1948. Both stations sit upon the Central Line – Gants Hill’s ‘bright empty space’ beneath the roundabout the great tube architect Charles Holden‘s tribute to the Moscow Metro which he had been invited to visit after the builders of the Moscow network had originally been inspired by Holden’s Piccadilly Circus station. (Hanger Lane was completed by a former assistant of Holden – Frederick Curtis).

The golden vaulted ceilings of the concourse between the platforms reverses the pattern of other underground stations which show their wares upfront with decorative ticket halls. At Gants Hill the ticket hall is barely there – a minor node in the tangle of tunnels before the escalators guide you to Valhalla deep below the traffic hell.

Is this the Future of London?

For a few brief days back in June an exhibition at Red Gallery gave us a glimpse into the horror show about to be unleashed upon London by developers. Reclaim London’s, Ubiquitous Unique simply consisted of a series of architectural elevations submitted to local authority planning committees. Beneath were some of the claims made in support of the schemes:

“Contributes to the enhancement or creation of local distinctiveness”

“The proposals seek to respect the form, scale and grain of the surrounding townscape, and will make a positive contribution to the character of the area.”

Orwellian gobblegook interchangeable between projects, a pick-a-mix of sterile marketing speak completely at odds with the uniformity of what was on offer, buildings that could be just about anywhere from Shanghai to a ring-road in Houston.

Modernist wonder of Hermitage Court, South Woodford

It’s a place I’d only glimpsed from the W14 bus on the way back from South Woodford Odeon, one of the other great art deco wonders of Redbridge. But following my nose out to the forest the other week I finally took a closer look at Hermitage Court.

This suburban modernist marvel was built in 1935-6. It sits back off the Woodford Road, emitting a low hum of high architectural class and a sense of mystery brooding behind the net curtains. Lawyer to the Greater Train Robbers George Stanley rented a flat here for his mistress. In his book The Secret Train Robber, Lee Sturley recounts how George introduced Hermitage Court to fellow solicitor Maurice Lesser who apparently fell in love with the place and used it to for liaisons with various boyfriends at a time when homosexuality was illegal.

What other stories does Hermitage Court have to tell? This must just be the tip of the iceberg.

Slow Movement at the Barbican

If I hadn’t committed to doing a daily vlog then I probably would have ducked home out of the rain after my morning coffee. I sat in The Sunflower Café pondering on how my vlogs are a form of ‘Slow Vlogging’ – embracing and celebrating the familiar, local, the extraordinary lurking beneath the seemingly mundane. But how do you actual film a walking vlog in the driving rain.

I jumped on the Central Line to St. Paul’s and headed for the Highwalks of the City of London – covered walkways that in parts follow the line of the old Roman Wall. The Postern by the Museum of London is the best place to see how the remains of a Medieval Bastion were built into the wall, lining up with the remains of the Roman wall in Noble Street.

I followed the painted yellow line on the ground – a thread that leads into the Barbican – truly one of the wonders of London. Walking the raised walkways through the Barbican is best done in the middle of the night – but then I’ve only done that by accident when looking for a shortcut home when I lived just off Penton Mound. The soles of my trainers have been worn slippery smooth and I skated over the wet brick paving slaloming around the concrete pillars.

Day of the Triffids
Soon I slid all the way inside the Barbican itself  – the Brutalist mothership, a Le Corbusierian wet dream. Floating along the glass roofed corridors linking sections of the buildings, heavy brass doors hissing open ten yards before your arrival – it felt like being in a Space Station (well what I imagine it feels like from watching films) orbiting the City of London. The huge Conservatory with its towering palms and balconies dripping in tropical plants compound the feeling. It’s a glimpse of a future London after the collapse of civilization when nature has reclaimed the concrete wilderness – images garnered from the 1980’s TV adaptation of John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids.

My feet led me to The Curve Gallery currently housing a sculptural installation by Swiss Artist Roman Signer. A bright Ferrari red kayak is gently skimming over the bare wooden floor dragged by a cable attached to a motorized pulley running along a rail on the ceiling. The only other thing in the gallery are two screens showing the kayak moving in other spaces – being pulled from the back of a jeep along a country lane – and spinning around on a spit. The installation is called ‘Slow Movement’. I filmed the kayak from floor level moving in and out of frame – it was the perfect footage to accompany what I had been pondering that morning – of my daily videos as a kind of ‘slow vlog’. I’d honestly chosen to head for the Barbican so I could walk and film away from the rain – but here was a message inspiring me to stay ‘slow’.

Alien Invasion of East Village

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How am I supposed to process the latest arrival at East Village. I already feel unnerved by the looming presence of the monolithic blocks – this Mega City One in its infancy then these ‘things’ appear over night like something from an episode of Doctor Who – apparently benign and cheerful but containing an underlying threat of some terrible robot death.

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It seems I am not alone in my fear of this place – whoever was commissioned to create what I suspect is possibly ‘public art’ had a similar reaction.